Digital Camera Review

Buy to rent an apartment digital camera after reading consumer reviews and rating.

How do I decide which digital camera to buy?

Like everything, you have to decide what you want and what you will use the camera. Ask yourself a few questions:

- Do you actually get enlargements (5"x7" or larger) now? Would you feel bad if that landscape of Italy isn't high enough resolution to enlarge and frame? If so, get a 3-4 megapixel (MP) camera. - On the other hand, if you mostly take 4x6 snapshots, a 2-3MP camera may suit you fine, and your photos will take less space on your memory card and hard drive. - Is the camera for a teen or a child? If so, 1-2MP is probably enough.

- Is it exclusively for eBay and email? If so, a 1MP camera is enough. Photos you email will probably be edited down to 0.3MP or less!

The key considerations are these:

RESOLUTION. The tough decision. You want roughly 300 pixels per inch (ppi) for the size prints you want. For example, if you want 5 x 7 prints, that means 1500 x 2100 or 3,150,000 or 3.15 megapixels (MP). (240 ppi isenough, but you want extra pixels for cropping/trimming the photo.) So,if you want to be on the safe side, buy 3-4MP.

But ... if you never get enlargements and will never print many photos; and what you really need is something small and cheap that you can carry around for snapshots - without worrying about it - then get 2MP. Even at that resolution, you can print at 4"x6"-5"x7", and email photos. The other advantage of lower resolution is that you can fit more pictures in memory and on your hard drive. (Each MP uses up about 500kb = 0.5 megabyte at high-quality settings.)

Of course, you could always buy a 3 to 4MP camera, and only use high resolution for selected photos - portraits of the kids, special occasions, landscapes. More pixels also lets you crop (trim) the part of the photo you want and still have enough pixels for a good print. If money, time, and hard drive space are no object, get 4-5+ MP.

CAMERA SIZE. The second critical issue is the size of the camera. For me, smaller is better, because I'll carry it around and get photos I otherwise won't get. You lose some optical quality, though most won't notice; some flexibility in low light; and often use of filters, external flash, etc. But a good camera in your pocket takes more pictures than a great camera in your closet!

OPTICAL ZOOM. Zoom is essential for composing good photos and making the most of your pixels (by zooming in on what you want). Try to get 3x optical zoom. Digital zoom isn't useful, it discards part of the picture to zoom in on one part. You can do that on the computer, or on the camera itself, later on.

MEMORY AND BATTERIES. No camera comes with enough memory, and not all have rechargeable batteries, so add that into the budget. Order them right away. You will want 64mb (at least) or 128mb (better) or even 256mb (better still for high-res cameras) of memory. The various card formats vary widely in price per megabyte - CompactFlash is the best value of improliga . Get the right one for your camera, they're not interchangeable! Read memory card guide on this site for more information. If your camera doesn't come with rechargeable batteries, get two sets of nickel metal hydride/NiMH rechargeables or a lithium ion battery pack (or two). (Don't get NiCad batteries!) Regular alkaline batteries are useless except in dire emergencies.

A few other things:

Don't consider a camera without a flash, an LCD and a viewfinder (for when it's too sunny to use the LCD, or your batteries are low), except for children or limited use.
Compact cameras generally don't have manual features to control shutter and aperture. But you can get some control on most, if you use it right.
An autofocus (AF) illuminator helps focus in low light, a common problem.
You'll want a case to protect the LCD, if it's bouncing around.
Video modes are most useful if the camera captures sound; if the resolution is around 480x640 or more; and if the length isn't limited.
If you want to use commercial services to print a lot of pictures, you will want a fast Internet connection. Use the web to research your final selections. Consumer reviews on this site are a way to see if real owners like the camera.

An Introduction to Digital Photography

The Old Days

In the old days, I had to keep buying rolls of film whenever I wanted to take pictures. Back then, I had no idea how my pictures looked until I shot a whole roll, dropped the film off at a store, waited at least an hour (often a few days) and returned to the store for my prints. In those days, if I wanted to send pictures to my friends, I'd have to go back to the store and get reprints, and then mail them out. In the old days, if a picture was too dark, crooked, had my finger in the corner, or the lab had a problem getting the colors right, I just had to live with the music or throw it away. In those dark days, my photos were boring and my photography skills improved slowly, because I didn't want to waste the money on risky shots that probably wouldn't come out anyway. Back then, if I really loved a photo and wanted an enlargement, I'd have to dig through a shoebox full of negatives, find the right one, run back to the store, drop off the negative, and wait. In the old days, the vast majority of my pictures got tucked away into albums where they were hard to find and seldom seen.

New and Improved

For me, the old days ended in 1997, when I bought my first digital camera. These days are nothing like the old days. Now, I'm able to compose every shot I take on the LCD "TV screen" on the back of my camera. After I press the shutter, I'm able to instantly see the shot I took and make sure it came out well. I don't buy film anymore; the removable memory card in my camera can be used over and over. When I get home from a photo outing, I simply transfer the photos directly into my computer. If the pictures aren't perfect, I can crop and resize them, brighten them--even remove flaws. To share pictures with my friends, I can send e-mail attachments, put the photos up on my personal Web site, or even create a virtual album with an online service like Ofoto, where my friends can view my pictures and order prints of the images they like. If I only want to take a few pictures, there's no roll of film to use up before I can see my images. Because my camera uses rechargeable batteries, I can go shoot pictures all day for a few cents' worth of electricity. As a result, I've been taking far more photos. And why not? There's no reason not to take plenty of photos, since you can always delete the ones you don't like. These factors, combined with the instant feedback the display provides, have helped me to dramatically improve my photography skills.

On the Job

When I bought my first digital camera, I had two specific uses in mind. First, I was writing a newsletter, and wanted an easier way to insert photos. Second, I needed to take pictures of items I was selling online. For both of these purposes, digital makes much more sense than traditional film. With film, I had to shoot an entire roll, drive to the photo lab, hope the results were OK, and then scan the resulting image into my computer so I could insert it into my document or put it up on the Web. With a digital camera, I could shoot a handful of photos, pick the ones I liked best, and have them in my document or online in fifteen minutes. If you need to put images up on the Web or into a newsletter, go get a digital camera now--you won't regret it. But what about everyone else? Does a digital camera make sense for vacationers, parents capturing baby photos, and amateur photographers?

Dollars and Cents

I'm a thrifty guy, and I initially had some problems justifying the expense of digital photography. After all, a $100 point-and-shoot film camera can produce pictures as sharp as a $400 digital camera, and even a disposable camera can take pictures as clear as the ones from a $100 digital camera. Before purchasing my first digital camera, I actually calculated how much it would cost to develop and print a 24-exposure roll of film versus printing out 24 snapshot-sized photos on my home ink-jet printer. The numbers came out about the same, which made me wonder if purchasing a digital camera was really a wise choice. In hindsight, I look at my old calculations and laugh. My problem was that my numbers were mired in an obsolete "develop and print" film-based perspective. My first miscalculation was in thinking that I'd want to keep every photo I took. Let's face it: even pros take lots of mediocre photos. With traditional film, these photos would still get developed and printed--and usually discarded. My second error was in thinking that I'd want to print every photo I kept. If you're used to traditional photography, where prints are essentially your only option, you think prints are valuable and desirable. But once you're used to seeing your photos on a 15- or 17-inch monitor and can share them with friends electronically (and for free!), prints don't seem as exciting or necessary. These days, when I take 24 photos, I'll discard half, keep the rest on my hard drive (backed up on a recordable CD), e-mail a few to friends as appropriate, and maybe print out one or two to display or send to my computerless friends. Using my photos in this way, the expenses are far lower than they would be with a film camera, and I'm sharing my photos more effectively than I ever have before.

How It All Works

If you're an absolute neophyte to digital photography, here's a quick course on how it all works (more detailed information is available in our glossary, buyer's guide, and scattered elsewhere on the site). Most digital cameras look, feel, and operate essentially like a film camera. Like a traditional camera, a digital camera has a lens and a shutter, and usually also has an optical viewfinder. Instead of capturing images on film, a light-sensing device called a CCD "sees" the image. The CCD is made up of a grid of individual elements, called "pixels" (short for "picture elements"). The more pixels the sensor contains, the higher the resolution, and the more detailed the photo. When you click the shutter release, the camera converts the image the sensor sees into a file, which is then compressed by the camera (most cameras use JPEG compression, a standard format easily readable by home computers) and stored on a memory card. In essence, the camera is automatically developing your picture as soon as you press the button.

Photo Sharing, Manipulation, and Storage

The images are instantly ready to share--you can show them to others on the camera's LCD screen. If your camera has TV output, you can connect a cable between your camera and a TV and give your friends an onscreen "slide show." If you want to keep the photos, print them, or share them online, you'll need to transfer them to your computer. Manufacturers include a cable that connects your camera to your computer and lets you transfer the files. After the images have been transferred, you can erase the memory card and it's ready to use again.

The pictures on your computer can be sent to friends as email attachments, posted on a personal or photo-sharing Website, printed on your home printer, or sent off to an online service like Ofoto for photo-quality prints. If you're planning to archive your photos, saving them on a recordable or rewritable CD drive (CD-R or CD-RW) is a good idea.

One of the best parts of digital photography is getting a second chance to make your pictures look their best. Once the images are in your computer, you can use photo-editing software (almost always included with your camera) to brighten, sharpen, rotate, and crop images, as well as enhance colors, remove red-eye, and touch up flaws.

A Few Shortcomings

Digital photography is still a young technology. Though digital cameras are already better than film cameras in many ways, there are areas in which film cameras are still superior.

Shutter lag: After you press the shutter release on a digital camera, there's a small pause before the photo is actually recorded. On quick cameras, this delay is very short; on slower models, the wait can be � to � of a second. This may sound like a short time, but it makes sports and action photography a big challenge. With some practice, you learn to compensate, so it's not typically a problem. As cameras have improved, this delay has been getting shorter and shorter, and we expect that this delay will eventually essentially disappear.

Image quality: The sensors on a 3.3 megapixel camera record approximately 3 million dots of information, which is enough detail to produce photo-quality images at sizes up to around 10 by 14 inches. As an analog medium, the resolution of a piece of film is harder to quantify, but it's well above 3 million pixels. Theoretically, even an inexpensive film camera should be able to capture a sharper photo than a top-of-the-line digital model. In reality, most film images don't take advantage of all of a negative's detail, due to imperfect lenses, slight shaking when the picture is taken, etc. If you need the absolute highest possible resolution for an image, a quality film camera on a tripod will still produce higher-quality images than a digital camera.

Battery life: With its LCD display, processor, computer circuitry, and memory storage, a digital camera has more in common with a laptop computer than a film camera, especially when it comes to power consumption. If you spend lots of time previewing and reviewing your shots on the LCD, you can exhaust a set of batteries before you fill your memory card. This problem is easy to overcome by bringing a spare set of batteries, using an external belt-mounted battery pack, or by being more cautious with your use of the LCD.

Extended outings: If you're planning an extended vacation to a remote or technologically-challenged location, a digital camera may not be the best camera to bring. In addition to the problems of being able to recharge or replace your batteries regularly, there's the issue of film capacity. It isn't always easy to find a computer where you can download your pictures and then send them off to your home e-mail account to free up your memory card. And purchasing enough memory cards to store 500 images could cost more than the price of the camera.

Computer required: To make the most of your digital camera, you really need a computer--preferably, a reasonably powerful computer with plenty of memory, a big monitor, a nice printer, and a CD recorder. Some manufacturers have tried to create solutions to let people use digital cameras without having to use a computer--for example, there are printers with built-in slots for memory cards, allowing you to print images directly from the camera. With these printers, however, you still have two problems: limited ability to retouch your photos and no long-term storage solution. A computer really is necessary to take advantage of a digital camera's best features.

For most people, the advantages to digital photography far outweigh these shortcomings. Conclusion

Digital cameras have revolutionized the world of photography. Now, anyone with a digital camera, PC, and printer has the equivalent of a color darkroom and photo lab in their own home. The technology is still evolving, but has already surpassed film photography in many ways. Join the revolution--you won't be disappointed.

Digital Camera Definitions

Compatible memory type(s) The type of storage medium a camera uses to store its images. Most cameras accept only one type, and none of the types are interchangeable. Each format has its pros and cons, and the fact that none has yet become dominant suggests that there's no "best" format yet.

Digital zoom Also known as "simulated zoom." With digital zoom, the camera takes a small portion of an image and uses interpolation to artificially restore the file to its original size. Unlike optical zoom, digital zoom does not require any moving parts, so it's much cheaper to manufacture. Unfortunately, digital zoom also reduces the resolution of an image. Anyone can "digitally zoom" images at home by cropping and enlarging a picture with photo-editing software, so this feature is virtually worthless.

ISO film speed equivalency A measurement, borrowed from traditional film cameras, of light sensitivity. The higher the ISO rating, the better the camera will perform in low-light conditions. Most digital cameras have ISO ratings of around 100.

Macro focus range A separate setting for extreme close-up (or "macro") shots. Without a macro setting, cameras may not be able to focus on objects that are close to the lens.

Maximum CCD resolution The CCD (charge-coupled device) is the light-sensing device inside a digital camera and is composed of an array of individual sensors, or pixels, that "see" the image coming in through the camera's lens. The maximum CCD resolution is the total number of pixels in a camera's sensor, so the higher the resolution the greater the detail in a picture.

Onboard memory Some digital cameras have built-in memory in lieu of (or in addition to) removable media to store their images. Onboard memory is less expensive (and less flexible) than removable memory, and it's usually seen only in entry-level cameras.

Optical zoom Also known as "telephoto" or "true zoom," optical zoom works like the zoom on a traditional film camera. Elements within the lens move, reducing the field of view and making the object you're shooting appear closer.

Serial output An outgoing connector compatible with virtually all PCs and beige (pre-iMac) Macintoshes, making serial connections the most universal of transfer formats. However, it's much slower than USB.

USB (universal serial bus) output An outgoing connector compatible with virtually all PCs made since 1998 and all "colorful" Macs. A USB port is much quicker and more user-friendly than a serial port, but it is also a more recent innovation not found on older computers.

Video output Allows you to view your digital pictures on your TV or record them on a videocassette.